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The Sea Was Angry That Day. Some Notes on Philip Roth.

Recently The Guardian ran an article by one of its regular contributors, Jonathan Freedland, lamenting the inability of contemporary fiction to address the current state of politics generally and Donald Trump specifically.

Freedland’s point is that Trump and his gang of malignant trolls are of such a fantastic level of moral mange that the imagination of writers are beggared and incapable of responding in any meaningful way.

To ram home his thesis he treats the reader to a mostly long forgotten piece of sorrow resignation and exhaustion by Philip Roth entitled: Writing American Fiction.

The missive, published in Commentary in March 1961 (but originally a speech given at Stanford) is a solid piece of writing in the technical sense – that is, it works well enough as long as you don’t bother to ask too many questions, or think too much or very hard about anything Roth is saying, which of course also allows Freedland to escape unscathed and be relieved of any responsibility to actually prove his point.

For example Freedland quotes Roth:

“The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality…”

Then tells us:

“Roth wrote those words in 1961, when he could look out on the America of John Kennedy, J Edgar Hoover and Malcolm X, not long before the Cuban missile crisis would see the world teeter on the edge of Armageddon.”

Unfortunately for Freedland, and certainly for Roth as well, he never actually mentions Malcom X or Dr. King, or everyone’s favorite cross-dressing fascist goon, J.Edgar Hoover. He also doesn’t mention that Roth, who knows better, doesn’t bother to mention that there were hardly any moments before the mid 20th century that were any better or easier for American writers – but why let the facts get in the way of a good rant.

Nor does Freedland tell us anything about the state of contemporary American publishing, or the nexus of publishing and the entertainment empires that own the large publishing houses, and maintain a cozy relationship with the people who write reviews. And of course he has nothing to say about the state of American magazines and how and why stories get published or don’t, the Balkanization of the better known small magazines, nor does he have anything to say about the universities and their MFA factories and their connection(s) to the magazines that operate under the umbrella of the universities. In other words, as Freedland would have us believe, writing and what gets published occurs in a vacuum, is essentially a small batch artisanal endeavor and if Philip Roth has said something more or less similar, who are we to disagree?

But context and contrary facts aside, he is certain that no one has written anything about Trumpism that matches the unreality and outrage and excess of Trump, and no one is currently publishing anything that shows how the current political climate is being absorbed, pondered and recalibrated as art. No doubt this is because The Guardian has the ability to guess about as well as everyone else, and having looked out his window Mr. Freedland has seen the evidence and found America wanting.

It is not an unpopular point of view. For example the winner of the Let’s-Pretend-He’s-Another-Conrad-Award, Aleksandar Hemon made a similar point:

And here’s the money shot from the article:

“One has a hard time recalling a novel that has forcefully addressed the iniquities of the “post 9/11 era: the lies, the crimes, the torture, the financial collapse, not to mention Americans’ complicity in all those glories, including the fact that Bush had approval ratings reaching the nineties on the eve of the Iraq invasion. If some future historian attempts to determine what occupied the American writers’ minds since the beginning of the millennium by reading all the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners between 2002 and 2016, s/he would find few traces of Bush, or Iraq, or Abu Ghraib, or Cheney, or the financial collapse, or indeed any politics. Apart from The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has some things to say about American exceptionalism, the closest to political engagement a recent Pulitzer winner comes is by way of North Korea, the setting for Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, addressing the outrageous misdeeds of a reassuringly non-American regime.”

Of course Hemon is correct, one does have a hard time recalling such novels for the same reason one has a hard time recalling that Aldous Huxley died on November 22nd, 1963.

And it’s not because it didn’t happen, it’s because something else also happened.

In the case of books detailing the crimes, the torture, the financial collapse, etc, of which he speaks, Hemon, like Freedland, seems to have forgotten (or succeeded in not mentioning which is a not unimportant distinction) that books may get written, but they often don’t get published and even if they do get published, there is no guarantee they will get reviewed or reviewed in a place where people who matter will read about it. And we mean people who matter in the specifically cynical sense of people who write reviews, that other people in the industry read, and are also read by people who buy novels or short story collections, and this all comes with the caveat that the people who matter are part of the very system we’re discussing – the corrupt sham system of nepotism and corporate gangsterism.

It’s hard to take moral indignation seriously when it comes wrapped in a MacArthur Grant, or an ignorance so obvious that it begs the question – namely how could a reasonably well informed journalist, at a liberal-left publication and a famous author actually expect anyone to take this kind of obvious horseshit seriously as some sort of chagrin, if not pique, at what they call the morally inebriated and limp state of American writing, when clearly they are both aware that what goes into getting a book published and reviewed is as heartwarming as watching what goes into making a sausage.

We’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth revisiting William Gass on the merits of the Pulitzer and the dreary cutthroat state of publishing:

What then are we to make of this?

The Ink is reminded of two stories relayed by writers who taught at a prestigious East Coast university writing program.

The first one was friendly with a famous Italian film maker and a National Book Award winner, and once turned down lunch with Kurt Vonnegut out of anxiety at the prospect of meeting him.

Their story was about receiving a phone call from a friend who was a famous writer, and who wanted to know if the anxious one would be interested in helping to judge a writing contest. A small but not inconsequential amount of remuneration was involved and anxiety agreed.

The next day a box arrived at their apartment and in it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 pages of fiction.

Anxiety called their friend and protested – I can not possibly read that much in the time available. What do you want me to do?

Oh, said the famous writer, read the first page, the middle page and the last page of each manuscript and pick the one you don’t hate and send the title to me.

The second writer relayed the following: While working as a reader for a major publishing house they were confronted by a high ranking sub-editor who leaned over a partition at the writer’s cubicle and said: You’re taking too long on your recommendations. Well, said the writer, there’s a lot of material. Yes, said the sub, and the way we deal with that is you read the first line, a line from the middle and the last line of the manuscript and you tell me if it’s any good.

Now while surely there are editors who don’t do that, and publishers who don’t do that, and contests where that doesn’t happen, it is somewhere well beyond banal to suggest what clearly is obvious about publishing – namely this shit happens all the time and is widespread. And Hemon and Freedland both know it. In fact everyone knows it and is pretending otherwise.

America is a corrupt gangsterocracy running on the toxic vapors of deregulation, the thin cultural oxygen of corporate monopolies that have turned the country into one vast company town, and the financial hedonism of a bacchanal where the mantra is greed is good if not the face of god, and anyone who talks about what gets published and what doesn’t get published, without contextualizing it with references to bribes, sex, drugs, threats, egos, insanity, ignorance, corruption, mendacity and the general three ring circus of the inept morbidly obese state of our culture, is either a fucking idiot or a collaborator with the regime. And neither Freedland nor Hemon are that stupid. And let’s be clear – we’re talking about what gets published not what gets written, and Hemon, Freedland and Roth, as well as nearly every person writing a review of nearly every dazzling new novel and stunningly brilliant new short story collection takes the same view – and Then the New Yorker threw me a party and everyone was there….One minute I was sitting at the counter of Schwabs having a coke and the next thing I know I was being given an enormous check and a blowjob…

But again, Freedland and Hemon are not that stupid. Frankly, what other choice is there? And in the case of Hemon one does want to ask some questions – like, for example, how does a minor writer from Yugoslavia arrive in America, and within a few years have a book contract and access to The New Yorker and Granta and positive reviews and blurbs in all the usual places from all the usual suspects? Please, for fuck’s sake could someone tell us how that sausage was made? Yes, we can read wiki as well and see that he published a pair of well written pieces in Triquarterly the magazine of Northwestern and after that…well, the rest is literary success.

The literary Horatio Alger version is an elegant tautology of spin that is typical of the publishing world, and thus typical of every other American industry and it goes like this:

He’s that good.

That’s it.

Pigs fly.

The check is in the mail.

I’ll only put it in a little.

Baby, please, I’ve changed.

In the case of Hemon it’s also always accompanied by statements regarding how he’s akin to Conrad and Nabokov, in his extraordinary ability to go from his native language, to a complete and mesmerizing command of American English.

Ok, we’ll take it as read for the sake of argument but the fact is, no one just rolls into town and lands a yes we’ll publish it from the preppy gangsters at The New Yorker.

Unless someone is doing you a favor.

And we take a moment to consider that Northwestern is, shall we say somewhere to the right in its view of writing and culture and gee, says The Ink, a not untalented guy from a former East Bloc state, which was then in the midst of an epic meltdown from borderline tyranny to full blown barbarism, shows up in America and offers up a perfect biography for our dominant prefabricated cultural paradigm, in which the tired huddled masses reach our shores yearn to breath free, struggle at odd jobs but through pluck and grit rise to the top based solely on ability. Yup, it’s as American as apple pie, napalm and selling weapons to dictators in villas perched atop a mountain of skulls.

And in this case, The Ink is reminded of The Congress of Cultural Freedom.

No, we have zero proof to suggest it’s true, but we do have a suspicious sense about a writer from a more or less East Bloc nation who in what is essentially the literary version of walking on water, performs the miracle of going from nothing to everything in about five years. So, for example, consider this line in Hemon’s The Question of Bruno: “…the snot green sea.”

For those of you who are not literary aficionados the line will seem odd if evocative, and for everyone else it will be that and of course be instantly recognizable as one of James Joyce’s more famous – well – Joyceisms. It’s not a question of violating a copyright but is a question in two parts. First, it is a blatant bit of literary theft and without any reference that we can find to Joyce in the rest of the story (beyond the sampling as the kids in music would phrase it) – no sly allusions, no Joycean puns; nothing to say, hey look at me making clever with the literary reference.  No, just appropriation and of one of the games crown jewels. But then this brings us to the second question: How is it possible that no one else noticed? The Question of Bruno has been read and reviewed by other writers. It has been praised and reviewed by still more writers. It’s not a bad piece of writing. And yet, it has a flashing neon sign that is a curious thing – it’s a blatant use of someone else’s trademark language, and no one even bothers to say – hey Hemon, what’s up with the Joyce?

Perhaps the reviewers were just lazy? Perhaps the writers are ignorant? Or, perhaps something stinks. And as Roth says in a different context, I wouldn’t want to hang a man for one crime. But then, as The Ink says, well, first tell me what the crime was?

And the reasons are because of what we’ve outlined above – the game, the racket, the industry is crooked, and warped around and by all of the usual culprits from lies to bribes to sex and drugs and of course fear; fear of failure and getting sacked by sadistic bean-counters who wouldn’t know a good novel if you dropped a library on them, but do know stock options and lawyers. And no one who has spent any time in a university, and isn’t on the take, would deny that it’s as greasy as any boardroom or office in any other industry. For example, consider the back and forth in Shameless, where Lip Gallagher is involved with three professors – an alcoholic math whiz, a libertine dominatrix with a Egon Schiele fetish, and another who takes a bribe in the form of weed in exchange for access to a job.

That’s how these things work, and while not all exchanges work that way enough of them do to make any honest person ask, how in the fuck does one novel get published while others do not?

But more than all of that we have Hemon’s own words. He’s right, as we said, you would be hard pressed to think of an American novel that deals with the post 9/11 zeitgeist in the same way that, oh let’s say, The Master and Margaritte, or We, deal with Stalinism, or the Trial deals with everything else, or 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 so specifically paint portraits of tyranny. Feel free to make your own list but the fact remains Hemon is correct, but he is also not an idiot and he is also not poorly read, and also not unaware of the currents of history. Thus, his comment seems curious and closer to, he doth protest too much, me thinks then it is to, god damnit we should march to the barricades and force those bastards to act morally. Exactly what does he think goes into the sausage? Does he think there is some sort of special dispensation for, or forcefield around American writers that keeps them from writing about politics and torture, and the excesses of the Bush-Cheney junta? What, we wonder might be keeping American writers from talking about Guantanamo? Or the collapse of the economy?

Perhaps we should reverse engineer the question and ask instead of Hemon – are you fuckiing kidding me with this bullshit?

In such an environment, where writers of stature, however it was purchased, make statements that sound suspiciously like news-speak, it is no wonder that journalists like Freedland write sweeping generalizations that give a free pass to both the neo-fascist goons of Trumpism, and lazy writers comprising the lube in the gears of the establishment. After all, if you eliminate the facts, all that remains are, of course, alternative facts. Of course Freedland would point to any number of articles he’s written detailing his disgust with Trump and it’s not as if Hemon is a Make America Great Again thug, but the fact remains that by saying it’s all somehow too much, one is forging a link in the long chain that stretches back to the sun flashing off the barbed wire while train whistles echo in the foggy distance. If it’s too much for you to write about, if it beggars your imagination well then, fuck off. Your immoral collaboration with the regime is on you.

Which brings us back to Roth.

The best thing about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel was it put an end to the noxious pleading and lamenting on behalf of Roth winning the damn thing, because there’s no way in hell they will award it to two Americans in a row and with Roth approaching his 80s time has basically run out.

Bitter, you say?

No, just clearing our throat and getting warmed up because we now turn our attention to Roth’s hand job for Norman Podhoretz in Commentary. The essay is essentially a reactionary love letter to a faction of the New York Jewish establishment, pleading to be accepted and brought to dinner at Elaine’s while masquerading as a cris de coeur; a dark night of the soul bereft of everything decent, except baseball and seltzer. Being polite Roth gives us a bottle of claret and a handkerchief so we might endure what he calls his alienation, befuddlement, and apoplexy at the state of America as it enters the 60s and lurches into what he describes as, the maelstrom of frenzy and neon distortions that have left him and his contemporaries wandering in a daze; shell shocked by tabloids and gossip, ruined by the flagrant disregard for decorum and, like an angry man at a deli sending back his soup, Roth is fed up with all of it.

Or so it seems, because it’s such a limp performance it’s hard to tell.

To begin with one notices that with the exception of Ralph Ellison, all of the writers he mentions are White. Not a crime of course but, one does wonder where Baldwin might have figured in Roth’s version of events or for that matter, where Jazz might have landed in the cultural landscape. Or Abstract Expressionism. Yes, technically the essay is about fiction and not about painting, abstract or otherwise yet, how seriously can Roth be taken in general when his focus is a narrow subset within an even more narrow subset, and how seriously can he be taken specifically when, ostensibly he’s talking at length about America and New York at a moment when it was experiencing one of the most fevered episodes of artistic revolt and experimentation in its storied history? Roth is writing in the Spring of ’61. Kind of Blue was only 2 years old. And between 1960 and 1961 to name just a few – Ornette Coleman: Free Jazz, Max Roach: Freedom Now Suite, Charles Mingus: Presents, Ornette Coleman: Ornette, John Coltrane: Impressions, Charles Mingus: Oh Yeah, and Coltrane’s My Favorite Things.

All of which just happen to be by Black artists. Acting as if Jazz wasn’t happening; acting as if it wasn’t relevant, acting as if it was not a titanic response and a narrative response to the zeitgeist is by itself enough to condemn Roth and Commentary but why stop there. Roth was writing this before the Civil Rights Act of 1965 – so his condemnation, his angst, is the anxiety of man who is complaining about the chlorine level at the public swimming pool – while ignoring the sign that says: Whites Only.*

And of course, this being Commentary, and Podhoretz, there has to be the ritual leavening of The Beats who are mentioned, and dismissed with a barely stifled yawn because, as Moses Podhoretz explained when he came down from the mountain, Ginsberg was traif, The Beats are know nothing Bohemians and there’s nothing to be seen there. So, move along.

While it’s true that at his worst Kerouac betrays a sophomoric anti-intellectualism (his sparknotes level take-down of Hemingway in On The Road is a perfect example of a lack of thoughtfulness) the idea that he didn’t represent a legitimate response to the social climate, is equally junior college tripe – and in reality is nothing more than an intercine reflection of the Jewish schism in which Podhoretz casts Ginsberg as a filthy Trotskyite and therefore not the right kind of Jew. And it is also a sad case of a group of men shouting about their anxiety while ignoring everything else going on around them.

And as to Ginsberg, there is no getting around the significance of Howl – like the nutty professor and vile Jew hater Ezra Pound put it in another context, and while speaking of the long shadow cast by Whitman’s beard – there’s no way through it, no way around it, so, I give up and let’s make common what is true between us. So it is also true with Ginsberg – he is in many respects a minor poet who only wrote three great poems (Howl, Kaddish and Wichita Vortex Sutra) but (and this is crucial) it’s like saying he was a baseball player who only ever hit three home runs – the one that won the World Series and the second one that won the Pennant and the third one that went further than any other. In other words – they give you a bust in Cooperstown for that. But Roth’s final dismissal of them is his suggestion that they’re hypocrites as desperate for a best seller as anyone else. And except for the drugs, murder, psych wards, exile in other countries and being put on trial for obscenity, Roth makes a valid point.

But again, what are we to make of the absurdity of it; the absurdity of the dismissal and the absurdity of how Roth and Commentary are taken seriously – Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (and the manager of City Lights, Shig Murao) were brought into a courtroom to face charges that could have led to prison. And Roth says nothing about it. Not a word. The very essence of rebellion, the very essence of alienation, the essence of the idea of literature and the freedom to speak as one desires the very literature that he laments being AWOL – all of that, is ignored by Roth. The only people who would consider Howl a cultural speed-bump at best, and at worst a threat to public safety are dilettantes, fascists or conmen in Brooks Brothers suits. And Roth is neither a fascist nor a dilettante.

And make no mistake – the true context of Roth’s social trajectory is the schism between the reactionary Jews centered on and around Commentary and the radicals centered on and around Ginsberg which was itself, a continuation of the often violent split between the Jews of Europe. Podhoretz’ assault on Ginsberg was really a bank shot using Ginsberg as a tool with which Podhoretz hoped to defeat the Trotskyists of Europe which would have been interesting except for the fact that Ginsberg wasn’t a doctrinaire leftist but an eclectic radical and a soft form libertine.

To go further with this let’s consider Roth’s declaration that he, like Edmund Wilson, finds himself essentially alienated from America. Wilson, he tells us, reads Life Magazine and does not recognize the country depicted in its pages (and of course it helps lube Roth’s palm that in To The Finland Station, Wilson beats Trotsky over the head with an icy disdain so invoking Wilson is sure to please Podhoretz). Roth expreses his empathy with Wilson’s sense of alienation because he too is adrift; separated from America and thus unable to process the increasingly bewildering array of manic forces deployed against his too sensitive antennae. What is a poor writer to do?

Well, if you’re Philip Roth, apparently the answer is to write factless propaganda for people even more stick-up-the-ass uptight than you are. What’s amusing, and also sad about this, is that while lamenting his state of alienation, and dismissing The Beats, Roth of course completely ignores one of the most important aspects of the Beat revolt – namely that they felt utterly, catastrophically alienated from the American scene and, like Roth, were reduced to a state of nervous agitation but unlike Roth responded with engagement and to stalking the streets-

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..”

But that’s too much action for a man with a fountain pen up his ass. And rebellion means risk, so Roth, like a proper bourgeois, ignores the government’s assault on civil liberties, ignores the majestic response, condemns the rebels as frauds, and pleads for understanding as he reaches for some aspirin, antacid, a cold compress, and a royalty check. The irony would be funny were it not both so sad and infuriating. It simply can not be taken seriously but seriously can be taken as contemptuous hack-work on behalf of a gang of malignant trolls.

Consider this pearl of pseudo-wisdom: “For what is particularly tough about the times is writing about them, as a serious novelist or storyteller.”

Good god, how did this get passed the editor? How did this survive review by other writers? How has Roth managed to thrive as a writer after committing such radioactive fecal matter to print?

Are we to actually read this and say yup, looks like tough times have finally come to America; the ranch is broke, there’s a drought, and Uncle Mike’s got the gripe…not sure what we can do, might as well git drunk.

Because of course, as Roth would have us believe, things were by definition better, and easier for America’s writers during oh I don’t know, the period between 1861 and 1865 which ended with…a bang. And surely Twain was kidding when he said in response to the question, is writing easy? “Sure it is, you just slice open a vein and let it pour.” Or during the 1920s when there was no hype and less excess and the cultural landscape was dominated by social midgets with no mysterious quirks. And of course the 1930s were a cakewalk and no one, we mean absolutely no one, went into the 1940s and came out the other end with anything less than a steady case of optimism and a clear-eyed sense of an endlessly prosperous future waiting for us all. As Huxley put it in his foreword to Brave New World:

“I have been told by an eminent academic critic that I am a sad symptom of the failure of an intellectual class in time of crisis. The implication being, I suppose, that the professor and his colleagues are hilarious symptoms of success. The benefactors of humanity deserve due honor and commemoration. Let us build a Pantheon for professors. It should be located among the ruins of one of the gutted cities of Europe or Japan, and over the entrance to the ossuary I would inscribe, in letters six or seven feet high, the simple words: SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF THE WORLD’S EDUCATORS. SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE.”

Yes, Roth and Podhoretz and the gang at Commentary were really onto something weren’t they? ‘Round about 1960, things got dicey and woe be to the writers of fiction – how would they ever cope?

Excuse The Ink while we reach for a bucket.

So in regards to Roth’s essay and the blind rutting pig tone of Commentary, essentially, the entire percolating volcano of the youth rebellion and counter-culture revolt, and the civil rights movement, were missed by Roth, and dismissed by Podhoretz as some sort of Frankenstein’s monster and an amalgam of  a reheated Troskyite binge of sadism and poor taste in clothes, that should be condemned and ultimately burned at the stake – all in the name of fighting the genuinely evil threat posed by Stalin or in Roth’s case, being accepted. This mishmash however has always been absurd – yes Stalin was a monster but, fighting Stalin by making common cause with fascists is like…fighting Stalin by making common cause with fascists and is as morally reprehensible as…supporting the fascists in order to fight other fascists. There’s no getting around that either and it makes no logical sense. After all consider this from Roth’s state of bewilderment:

“Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine? Dwight David Eisenhower?”


Is this to be taken seriously? And how has it escaped denigrating fits of laughter?

Are we to actually nod in agreement with the sentiment that Eisenhower (Eisenhower!?!) is so otherworldly, so essentially beyond the norm of what is to be expected that when confronted by his existence we must be reduced to a state of muted jitters and shakes? And Roy Cohn and David Schine? This is written in 1961, fifteen years after the end of the last world war and thus well within the living memory of people who were adjusted to the idea that after Auschwitz poetry was banal, except for when it was essential and the idea that you couldn’t write about a vile second rate sado masochistic interior decorator for the Bund, like Cohn, or a cheerleader for the Waffen SS glee club, like David Schine, says everything about Roth and absolutely nothing about literature, though it does speak volumes about publishing.

Roth asks how could anyone write about these people and The Ink asks instead, how could you not?

But to go further let’s consider this from a strictly writerly perspective and place Roth’s sense of vertigo in the stream of the writing that had come before he fell off the ledge, into the moat of unreality.

Roth was well aware of Kafka, and Bulgakov; of Twain and his Mysterious Stranger and certainly of Poe and indeed, of Huxley and a hundred others and within that inheritance Roth’s sense that things were falling apart and that one could not, as a writer, contend with the unreality of the facts, or the hyper-reality of it, starts to not only make no sense, it starts to sound suspiciously like Roth knew it made no sense.

He continues:

“The daily newspapers then fill one with wonder and awe: is it possible? Is it happening? And of course with sickness and despair. The fixes, the scandals, the insanities, the treacheries, the idiocies, the lies, the pieties, the noise”

The sickness and the despair? Are we to believe Roth was unaware of how that sounds remarkably like the nexus between Sartre and Kierkegaard? And then: The fixes, scandals, the insanities…because Roth has somehow forgotten everything from Teapot Dome to Eliot lamenting the end of any place where one might rest one’s soul and find meaning? He goes on to be dismissive of writers who talk about…the bomb because they sound like overly serious college students. Had he forgotten Hiroshima and John Hersey? Or, was he hoping that we had?

But then, Roth sticks the landing. It’s the last word that tells the tale – noise…what epics are contained in that oh so early 60’s curse against…everything but especially against what was soon to be The British Invasion and was already Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Miles Davis…yes, the noise from which the bourgeoisie must escape, must barricade himself in a redoubt somewhere within the Caliphate of Manhattan. And Roth, and the fussy, cranky old ladies of both sexes hear the word (counter) culture, and reach for their copies of The National Review and wail: Bolsheviks to the left of me…Beatniks to the right of me…and yes, worse was to come – the riots, the slow-motion industrial scale genocide in South East Asia, the political assassinations and all of it, in living color on your television…except, somehow, through civil war and depressions, we managed -Whitman still managed to write My Captain, My Captain, and America’s writers found ways to respond to all of that and trench warfare and the collapse of the economic gulag, and gas chambers and the shambling, creaky, hypocrisy of the Republic survived. And so did the writers.

and so it goes…

And so it plays out like a bourree and is about as interesting. Stalin being a carnival of monstrous excess provides Podhoretz with a greased runway to launch his assault on the (some of the) Jews of New York, who were pro Left and anti-kapital and Roth, desperate to escape the violent provincialism of his corner of the tribe jumps at the chance to throw facts and context overboard, along with his conscience, and gives Commentary a jaw-shattering blowjob by writing a reactionary piece of White shuck and jive that says the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, and the barbarians are at the gates. Except, he’s too smart and too well read to actually believe what he’s writing and instead, The Ink suspects, he was not guilty of being a reactionary goon, he was guilty of pretending to be a reactionary goon because it looked good on his resume. And isn’t that just the perfect Rothian gambit. The ghost writer as ghost writer who has pulled off a great heist by pretending to be a writer named Philip Roth.

And so what we have is essentially the same atavistic shit pile with continuity – and Podhoretz went on peddling it right up until he and Benito Giuliani were trying to pretend either that Giuliani would be president, or that Trump had a brain big enough to hold onto more than one idea at the same time and would, they hoped, be their useful idiot and establish a police state and/or drop an atom bomb on Iran… thus provoking a crisis that by necessity required the establishment of…a police state. And contemporary writers and journalists can invoke Roth as an authority and lament the absence of contrary visions without mentioning anything that might turn the spotlight on the absence of their social conscience.

Along the way, the right wing imitation reactionary case of heebee-jeebees that Roth displayed in 1961, re-surfaces years later in his love poem to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney – The Plot Against America – in which Jew hating American hero, Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in the election of 1940.

Many neo-Nabakovian hijinks ensue, in typical Roth style and, speaking of the book, Roth said – the thing is, it didn’t happen; America was not taken over by the fascists.

That was in, 2004.

And of course, except for the fact that George W. Bush was the public face of a private corporate junta put into power by a judicial putsch, that The Patriot Act is an unconstitutional assault on Civil Liberties, and that the establishment of an Orwellian surveillance state may yet allow Trump to establish himself as a dictator, Roth makes yet another valid point.

And there you have it – the wobbly kneed scare that Roth proposed fifty plus years ago in the service of a gang of right wing hobgoblins flies in a straight line to Roth shaking hands with Obama at The White House instead of saying, no thank you, I think the president of The United States can not be allowed to order the execution of a U.S. citizen based on what he says is secret evidence:

because even if the target is a criminal, and has blood on his hands, the law is not just about now, it’s about the unknowable future in which some utterly craven, monstrous buffoon, with the emotional stability of a serial killer, could claim the authority to do the same thing. Or worse.

And as William Saletan says at the end of his article detailing the ways in which al-Awlaki deserved to die “But under the current program of drone strikes abroad, American citizenship means nothing.”

But Roth instead, went to The White House, shook the man’s hand and seemingly had a fine time. Because, thank god, it didn’t happen here.

So here’s to Philip it can’t happen here Roth. As Former Attorney General Eric Holder put it: Due process is not the same as judicial process…meaning, yes the judges can review the case, can consider (some) of the secret evidence, we claim to have gathered but, our right to cut your head off, to put a bullet in your brain, or to launch a missle at you from a mile away, has no connection to that flimsy scrap of paper called The Constitution.

And it’s all too much for us wooly-headed writers to tackle…we just don’t know what to make of it all…and, of course, we can trust them…it’s not like some foreign psychopathic thug would hijack an election and help install a paranoid misogynistic racist half-wit…



*For a look at the contradictions of Podhoretz, see: James Fallows:

Postscript: The New Yorker ran a piece on a Post Trump review of Roth’s The Plot Against America to see if Roth had changed his mind and instead of – it didn’t happen here – does he view Trump as proof that it has happened here?

Needless to say, Roth does not. Safe in the redoubt of Connecticut, wealth and a refined regal aloofness, Roth says:

“Unlike writers in Eastern Europe in the nineteen-seventies, American writers haven’t had their driver’s licenses confiscated and their children forbidden to matriculate in academic schools. Writers here don’t live enslaved in a totalitarian police state, and it would be unwise to act as if we did, unless—or until—there is a genuine assault on our rights and the country is drowning in Trump’s river of lies. In the meantime, I imagine writers will continue robustly to exploit the enormous American freedom that exists to write what they please, to speak out about the political situation, or to organize as they see fit.”

There is something sad about it at this point – not quite senility but a sort of moral parkinson’s disease. Roth’s enfeebled imagination is incapable of conceiving of the possibility that today’s Stasi would not think it prudent to find less obvious ways of stripping writers, or anyone else for that matter of their constitutionally protected rights.

Roth here ignores the no fly list with its Kafkaesque secrecy, and he of course does not imagine that the goon squad could – as Edward Snowden disclosed – prevent targets from getting jobs, or would in anyway so disrupt their routines (paying the rent, going to the grocery without being followed and harassed, having their medical records sifted, having their friends intimidated by normal procedural questioning) and that while they might still have a driver’s license, they know, there is nowhere to drive…that won’t be under the gaze of the eye that never blinks. And to go further – Roth’s idea of an example of state power – the suspension of a driver’s license – is stuck in second gear; stuck in the 1970s (as he says albeit without any self awareness). Of course Roth has been an old man for fifty years so it’s not surprising that his imagination hasn’t grown beyond the technology of the last century.

More than that though is the sheer stupidity in Roth’s laissez faire distance – does he really think that today’s Stasi would broadcast a list of targets who they are preventing from getting published? America is not East Germany but that doesn’t mean America is free.

As to the idea that one’s children in America are not prevented from going to a school because of a blacklist (racist, class based, and politically motivated) – does Roth actually think the government – with its well established track record for hysteria and terror and intimidation – wouldn’t unleash the dogs of obedience? Could anyone who is sensible and not an apologist for and collaborator with the regime, look at the government of the last 20 years and think they wouldn’t be exactly as authoritarian and vile as they appear?

In the end Roth is more to be pitied than censured though if the pitty were appropriately broadcast, the censure would, rightly follow.

Read the article here:


Update: 8/19/17.

It is worth noting the following as an example of what was to be found in Life magazine and thus, one assumes, is evidence of both Edmund Wilson and Roth’s inability to “recognize the America” it portrayed. In this example we have an unknowing stooge of MK Ultra describe his historic discovery of hallucinogenic and shamanistic rites in Mexico. What we arrive at is Roth as a reactionary member of the bourgeoisie.

Update: 9/5/17

The Ink is chagrined to discover only today that renowned poet Jorie Graham was involved in a prize fixing scandal. The details can be found below but what strikes us here at The ink is the extent to which it now seems likely that the publishing world (the business of publishing – reviews, prizes, contracts, publicity and subsequently reputations) is as sleazy and corrupt as anything we have discussed in regards to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and fundraising for nonprofits. That Ms. Graham went on to be given an endowed chair at Harvard should come as absolutely no surprise.

Postscript: We offer another example of the dilemma in the essay linked below. In an erudite essay that captures most of the flaws in contemporary American writing – especially in contemporary American poetry – the author manages to maintain the same fiction as Roth and Hemon Et Al.

“I search in vain for the kind of large-minded poetic response the events that began on September 11, 2001, and continue to this moment ought to have engendered. To the “War Against America” and the “War on Terror” and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya and Syria, I look for something like the creative reaction that Whitman had to the Civil War and Ginsberg had to Vietnam. In “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” Lowell, writing almost forty years before the fact, reacts to 9/11 and the wars that followed better than most of our contemporaries do. Why must this be so?”

The answer of course is that the publishers wont publish it and the MFA factories wont encourage or allow it and certainly wont pass it along to their agents or publishers and instead everyone can go on pretending that these things just aren’t being written. And in a sense it’s true as the people who are writing it become increasingly marginalized and forced to the periphery of the kingdom of irrelevancy – where there are no advances, no advertising, no reviews, no discussion, and no one knows they exist. And slowly the tradition dies and people stop writing those sorts of poems and novels.

Read the essay here:

Update: 11/7/17

The New Yorker’s resident damp squib, Adam Gopnik has some kind words for the regime apologist Roth who, despite announcing his retirement appears to have yet another book being published. We note with amusement the following from the Gopnik essay:

(“To live outside the law, you must be honest” is one of the more fatuous untruths Bob Dylan ever uttered. To live outside the law, you must lie to everyone all the time about everything, and cut friends loose when today’s lies demand it).

Alas, poor Gopnik.

The Dylan line is from, Absolutely Sweet Marie, from the album Blonde on Blonde.

That the law as the blunt end of the state’s systemic corruption would enforce dishonesty is clearly beyond Gopnik’s ability to comprehend. Luckily we don’t have to rely on his judgement and instead can consider, Hammett, Chandler, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Dylan (or, see Springsteen and, Murder Incorporated) as well as a host of others who understand, give expression to, and can accommodate the contradictions of modernity – including the idea that the law being dishonest in the service of the intrinsically dishonest state requires and enforces dishonesty, which creates the condition for and habits of the alienated contemporary soul and that the time-worn notion of the existential American hero/outlaw is one that any cursory exegesis of Dylan would reveal. In other words, Baudelaire’s “Brother hypocrite, I salute you.” In other words every American noir gesture from Brando in The Wild Bunch to the kitch of Elvis.

Further it should come as no surprise that Gopnik would get his shorts in a knot over the mercurial Dylan poking at the absurdities of the American system, with its lies and distortions, and how those lies and distortions are fundamental to the mythology of America as exceptional because, of course nothing could be more in favor of a jaw shattering blowjob to the system than The New Yorker.

Reading Gopnik one might think no one has ever paid any attention to Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider trope, or Sam Peckinpah’s bloodbath response to America qua America in Vietnam and in the decades prior to that great imperial adventure – one part reheated Kipling one part Heart of Darkness, with napalm and ground up adderall by the barrel.

Should we pause for a moment and contextualize Dylan’s commentary by placing it alongside Bonnie and Clyde, or Chinatown, or The Godfather, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now, or the million times some world weary noir American knight errant walked down some mean street and was neither tarnished nor afraid? Should we remember that Rick is outside the law from the moment he meets Elsa till the moment he and Louis head off to Brazzaville? Honesty, is a moving target because anyone with any sense who ever looked at America knew they were looking at a carnival sideshow.

Should we then consider Dylan in Peckinpah’s Billy the Kid and then consider that something has gone horribly wrong with The New Yorker and that it’s time to fit it for a pair of adult diapers?

There is indeed a worrying sense that the old fellow has developed a kind of institutionalized senility because either Gopnik had a moral seizure and dropped a personal decree on Dylan to settle some account about which, have no doubt, Dylan is completely unaware, or Gopnik is just some sort of moron and no editor looked at this and said, well, no, because in fact Bob’s not being fatuous, you are.

And one should also consider the echo in Gopnik of the same rhetorical triple sow cow that sticks the landing by being spectacularly wrong in the same catastrophic trainwreck manner as Roth was wrong when he gave Commentary the key to his heart and a note that said: with you, no matter what.

It’s not just that Gopnik is wrong, it’s that he’s wrong the way a belly-flop into an empty pool is wrong, and still, no one in his hermetically sealed bubble is there to help him into the body bag after his remains are hosed off the bottom of the pool. Instead, it’s herbal tea and a round of tepid applause.

As someone else said in a different context: sad.

For some further considerations on the topic see Jonathan Lethem’s article on fiction, and his look at the film, The Line Up:

For Gopnik’s masterpiece see the link below:


The great advantage Roth’s keepers of the flame in the media have is that most people don’t read and most of the people who do read don’t get to make comments in large media platforms. As a result the official version of Roth (from establishment hacks like Jonathan Freedland and Adam Gopnik and Martin Amis) comes into focus and all the hypocrisy, doubletalk and general establishment bullshit that marks him as an establishment and bourgeois hack is erased from the narrative.

We have outlined above Roth’s ridiculous argument that the American writer of fiction, circa 1961, was left mute and reduced to a bad case of the heebee jeebees by the other-worldly fact of Eisenhower et al, and that the dissident actions of the Beats were really a cheap stunt to secure the benefits of having a best-selling book or two, and that Roth was quite content to ignore Dr. King and J. Edgar Hoover in order to gain entry to a social club.

But we can go further.

Consider that in Writing American Fiction Roth savages Norman Mailer for deviating from a monk like existence and commitment to writing fiction and produces instead journalism, and politics and stunts that garner media attention. Roth’s view is that this takes too much time and energy and pulls one away from what matters – writing lamentations about ones inability to write.

But it turns out that Roth was pretty busy himself not writing fiction. Writing American Fiction was originally a speech delivered at Stanford in California, which was followed by a stint teaching writing at Iowa and that was followed by delivering a speech at Loyola in Chicago. All in 1961.

Busy then depends upon who’s doing what and where, versus any actual aesthetic objection. Far more importantly though is the content of Roth’s speech in Chicago.

Having first dismissed the Beats as frauds Roth here invokes them as authentic rebels in opposition to the plasticine absorption machine of America:

“I refer to the swallowing up of difference that goes on around us continuously, that deadening “tolerance” that robs – is designed to rob – those who differ, diverge, or rebel of their powers. Instead of being taken seriously as a threat, a man is effectively silenced by being made popular. They are presently holding beatnik parties in the suburbs…”

So apparently Roth either believed that the Beats were frauds or he believed they were subversives in a battle against the shallow cultural grave of post war America, or he believed both or he believed neither. But why let that get in the way of a good kvetch.

Who can say? As Groucho Marx said, in a slightly different context: These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.

On the one hand Roth laments his inability (which he equates with everyone else’s assumed inability)* to write about the world as it was in 1961 and in doing so claims that Ginsberg & Co were fakes, and on the other he then contradicts himself and claims that the genuine Beat aesthetic was being corrupted by the vast absorbent diaper of America.

But notice he doesn’t actually then say let’s cheer on Ginsberg (though in Writing American Fiction he is dismissive specifically of Gregory Corso). That of course would require some form of commitment and Roth clearly is all about avoiding committing to anything that might get him in trouble.

But then, Roth reverses course yet again. Having dismissed attempts to write about and discuss the atom bomb he gives us this:

“In the case of Hiroshima, we might perhaps be given a song to sing about the beautiful modern city that has risen from the ashes of atomic annihilation, about how much more prosperous, healthy, and enterprising life is in the new city than it was in the Hiroshima that was obliterated.”

So again as with Mailer and the Beats, Roth’s real point is not that they are wrong but that he gets to switch from being judge and jury and literary executioner when it suits him, or when he has to please one audience versus another. If Podhoretz wants to pretend the Beats are filthy useless Trotskyites then Roth will oblige. If he needs to dismiss Mailer’s self-aggrandizing stunts he will, while keeping up a busy schedule of self-aggrandizing public appearances. And if he needs to be dismissive of the bomb as a topic he will be dismissive until he has need for it as a rhetorical device that suits his next audience. And if he needs to reduce American culture to a narrow course devoid of things like the battle for Civil Rights, by pretending they don’t exist that’s fine too, at least until he needs to turn the existential angst on its head and lament the ways in which the great American myth machine starts to consume the Beat rebellion, and then Roth will be there to hand out directions to the nearest barricade – while he’s off to teach a class at Iowa or have dinner at Elaine’s.

In other words, Roth was the quintessential establishment hack.

For a look at the piece in which he performed his rhetorical somersaults about the bomb and the Beats, etc see: New Jewish Stereotypes, in Why Write, Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013.

*Alas poor Philip, the record contradicts you. We refer to Roth’s Writing American Fiction in which as detailed above he claims the events of the mid 20th century are too much for an American writer.

And yet in 1974, in an interview with Walter Mauro for his collection of interviews with writers on the subject of power, Roth says:

“I was in college during Joe McCarthy’s heyday – I reacted by campaigning for Adlai Stevenson and writing a long angry free-verse poem about McCarthyism for the college literary magazine.”

Well, issues of personal revisionism and hypocrisy and contradiction aside we wonder if the poem was really written, and if it was in fact written was it in fact published in the student literary magazine, and if it was published was it understood to be an anti McCarthy attack or was it safely obscure? This is no idle question as it not only goes to the issues of Roth’s mendacity, and his highly flexible sense of ethics, but it raises the obvious question – if he wrote the poem and it was published were he and the poem reported to the Hoovers? Was Roth the ersatz lefty and Jew reported as a subversive? If not, why not, given the atmosphere in the nation during what Roth says was the “heyday of McCarthyism.” And if he was reported what happened? Or, was Roth telling a tall tale that aside from contradicting his stance in Writing American Fiction, made him sound good and brave and involved? Or as they used to say: committed.

Roth brings more attention to this issue further on in the same interview. Speaking of his Nixon satire, Our Gang, he says:

“I mean something akin to what ordinary citizens experience in countries like Czechoslovakia or Chile: a daily awareness of the government as a coercive force, its continuous presence in one’s thoughts as far more than just an institutionalized system of  regulations and controls. In sharp contrast to Chileans or Czechs, we hand’t personally to fear for our safety and could be as outspoken as we liked…”

Well that’s mighty White of you Mr. Roth.

And aside from the people killed by the cops, tortured by the cops,* and victimized by the FBI, one has to wonder if his claim that he was angry enough to write a poem denouncing Joe McCarthy but later believed that in America writers could say whatever they wanted without fear of reprisal, was the truth. And exactly what then did he get so angry about in regards to McCarthy? The Hollywood Ten? The Blacklist? Or should we just conclude that he never wrote the poem, never spoke out against McCarthy or much of anything and that by the mid 70s he was a comfortably safe bourgeois establishment hack who felt he could tell one contradictory tall tale after another without fear of consequences? Of course while everyone in the “counterculture” assumed the Hoovers and the cops were not only spying on everyone but planting evidence, breaking into people’s homes, blackmailing them, extroting them and were in bed with the mafia, when Roth says he had no fear of reprisals it’s clear he’s telling the truth. Because establishment hacks with their bourgeois concerns had no fear of consequences beyond a bad review in The New York Times.

We also want to take note of the fact that while Catch-22 was published (just after but also in 1961) after Roth wrote Writing American Fiction, Heller’s masterpiece offers a stark lesson on the dangers inherent in being a bourgeoisie hack working to get a table at Elaine’s. Catch-22, whatever its flaws, represents the fact that the issue was not, nor is now, a lack of imaginative or moral ability on the part of American writers but the lack of imagination and moral courage on the part of publishers even when they managed to get it right and publish something like Catch-22. Roth of course was not about to bite the hand that fed him so he just followed orders. But more than that of course is the atrophied imagination that could not contemplate the idea that someone somewhere in the vast engine room of America, would conjure a work that rises above fear and turns it into a work of art. Needless to say Catch-22 could not get published today which of course again undercuts the collaborationist rhetoric of Freedland and Hemon.

*Contrast Roth’s view of free America with Seymour Hersh. Writing in his memoir, Reporter, Hersh recounts one of his first and formative encounters with establishment censorship. Overhearing two Chicago cops discuss how one of them shot a “nigger in the back” after telling him he could go, Hersh reported the story to his editor who, of course said no, we’re not getting into a pissing contest with the copss, and the city of Chicago. After all, we have a newspaper to run.

Update: 6/22/18

In addition to the revolution in music that Roth ignores we are here adding a cursory glimpse at cinema and how not only were other artists finding ways to grapple with reality, the list of films produced between 1958-61 represents further proof of Roth’s reactionary politics and his anti-intellectual provincialism. In other words, you could take the boy out of Newark but you couldn’t take Newark out of the boy. The list is not intended to be complete and films produced after he delivered the original speech at Stanford don’t really count against him but taken altogether they represent some of the finest work in film ever produced. There is in the end something of state propaganda about Roth’s obituaries with not a single dissenting voice among any of the establishment and collaborationist rags. Writing American Fiction is consistently held up as a supreme example of Roth’s genius and we don’t disagree. We just find it unintentionally ironic where the establishment hacks find it a badge of honor.


Touch of Evil

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Defiant Ones

The Long Hot Summer

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

Run silent Run Deep

The Old Man and The Sea

Thunder Road

The Brothers Karamazov

The Fly



Some Like it Hot

North By Northwest

Rio Bravo

The Diary of Anne Frank

The 400 Blows

Porgy and Bess

Black Orpheus

Hiroshima Mon Amor

The World of Apu




The Magnificent 7

La Dolce Vita

Inherit the Wind

Butterfield 8


Ocean’s 11

Elmer Gantry


The Entertainer

Sink The Bismark

Sons and Lovers


Breakfast at Tiffanys

West Side Story

The Hustler

Judgement at Nuremberg

Update: 2/6/19

“Others will wonder what ails publishing that it nurtured and rewarded a clear fantasist for so long…”

That’s the always astute Jonathan Freedland holding forth on publishing’s latest episode of pissing itself.

See the details here:

And in another example of The Guardian’s intellectually barren approach to reality we have yet another piece that assumes what gets published is the indicator of what get’s written and that what get’s written and published is an accurate cultural weather vane instead of an indication of marketing and corporate propaganda.




6 comments on “The Sea Was Angry That Day. Some Notes on Philip Roth.

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